Scopa 'shocked' by plea bargains in corruption cases

Cape Town – The standing committee on public accounts (Scopa) is concerned that 41 of the anti-corruption task team's 42 successful corruption cases have ended with plea bargains and reduced sentences.

In the last three financial years, there had been 41 successful plea bargains in “serious corruption cases” involving more than R5m, the team told Scopa MPs on Wednesday.

The team comprises the heads of the Hawks, NPA, SIU, IPID, Financial Intelligence Centre, and SARS. All were present at Wednesday’s meeting, except NPA head Shaun Abrahams. His deputy Nomvula Mokhatla stood in for him.

The majority of cases in the three-year period involved between R5m and R89m. In two cases over R1bn was involved.

Mokhatla said 29 of the cases were guilty pleas, and the other 12 were plea bargains. Some included mandatory sentences, but most ended with a suspended five-year jail sentence.

MPs across the political spectrum took issue with the fact that the strongest censure was a fine and a suspended sentence. Serial corrupters were being given a "slap on the wrist".

ANC MP Ezekiel Kekana was convinced there must have been a miscommunication and asked if Scopa had specifically the team to provide details of cases settled via pleas. He could not believe that all the cases had been settled with pleas. Mokhatla said she would go through all the cases with a fine-tooth comb to confirm this.

DA MP Tim Brauteseth said the public wanted to see those guilty of corruption involving significant sums of money serve time in jail. He was worried that there were no significant consequences.

ANC MP Nyami Booi said he was worried about the perception corruption cases were creating in the eyes of the public and internationally.

Continuous plea bargains would not deter people from committing similar fraudulent acts in future. The committee should pursue engaging the executive directly in some of the cases, he said.

'No meaningful jail time'

Scopa chairperson Themba Godi said he was shocked that all the cases ended in plea bargains with no meaningful jail terms.

Justice department director general Vusi Madonsela said he was concerned that the committee thought the settlements were an anti-climax.

"I think what might not be fully appreciated is that in our systems, there is a place for a guilty plea and plea bargains," he said.

"Let's not just look at the sentence being imposed. Part of the process is that the proceeds of crime are recovered. You don't go and serve five years after stealing R28m and then go back and enjoy that money."

There had to be proper guidelines, he said.

Godi said after the meeting that plea bargains did not deliver justice.

"None of the cases were fully prosecuted through convictions, meaning that all of them are outcomes where corrupt people have negotiated their way out of prison, which largely defeats the objective of using sentencing as a deterrent against corruption," Godi said in a statement later.

Scopa could possibly meet the task team for talks, because it felt there was a lack of political leadership. The committee would meet it on a quarterly basis from now on.

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